Why HS2's Eastern arm to Leeds must be built - Rail Magazine's Nigel Harris

Nigel Harris, managing editor of RAIL magazine, explains in the Saturday Essay why HS2's Eastern extension is so vital.

Passengers at Leeds Railway Station. Picture by Simon Hulme.

IMAGINE, at the time they were being planned, someone seriously arguing that the M1, M6 and M62 motorways should never have been built and that far greater benefits would have been created by upgrading existing A and B class roads.

They would have been ridiculed and laughed out of the discussion. Aye, back then, when the M62 was the biggest and most difficult civil engineering project in Europe, we had vision, confidence and a much clearer eye for what’s important.

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But in the midst of building this generation’s biggest civil engineering project in Europe, we seem to be in danger of losing the plot.

Lord Adonis visiting the Civic Hall in Leed. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Rumours (and that’s all they are at the moment) that the Government will abandon High Speed 2 East (HS2E) from Birmingham, through the East Midlands to Leeds are being widely reported – and not for the first time.

These flames are being eagerly fanned by long-time enemies of the project, including blinkered Greens (Greens for HS2 are an honourable exception), high-profile newspaper pundits and the Institute for Government’s Professor Stephen Glaister.

Their condemnation of HS2 is naturally being given wide exposure in TV and the print media. But, yet again, misconceptions have circled the globe before the truth has even put its boots on.

So, let’s make a couple of things clear. First, just about every cost figure you see reported is massively inflated partly because of ludicrous Treasury contingencies on the one hand and insane Phase 1 procurement policies on the other.

These passed so-called design risk on to the contractors building the railway, whereby they became responsible for structural resilience for maybe 25 years. This led to eye-watering ‘gold plating’ of construction standards on the one hand and gobsmackingly high insurance costs on the other.

Yes, HS2 Ltd chief executive Mark Thurston did tell the House of Commons Transport Select Committee that work is currently prioritising on HS2 West (HS2W)… but that’s not the same as saying that HS2E is being scrapped.

Until I hear Prime Minister Boris Johnson reverse his frequently repeated, unambiguous promise to “build the HS2 network in its entirety”, then Government policy remains unchanged, whatever the headlines, critics and mischief makers might imply.

Government has a long tradition of ‘testing the water’ on potentially controversial decisions which might blow up in its face, and I have no doubt elements of that are going on here. So, we HS2E supporters need to redouble our efforts to make it clear not only to Government, but also to communities on HS2E’s line of route (and to the country as a whole) just what is at stake if this fundamentally important aspect of the project was to be scrapped.

The tranche of recent Northern ‘red wall’ Conservative MPs, on whom the Government needs to remember that its Parliamentary majority depends, also need to stop snoring and sniff the coffee.

HS2 and Government messaging in the early days (a decade or so ago) was admittedly dire, and the myth took root among critics that HS2 was all about saving a few minutes on journeys to Birmingham. This was never the case.

Check out Andrew Adonis’ very first HS2 speeches in the House of Lords – they major on capacity.

And enhancing network capacity is still the raison ‘d’être of HS2 – with HS2E playing a crucial role. It is transformative and delivers the scheme’s greatest benefits. Without the eastern arm, HS2’s whole purpose is destroyed and it becomes nothing more than a very expensive West Coast Main Line by-pass, benefiting only the western half of the country – and with a much worse BCR (benefit:cost ratio) as well.

Far from ‘levelling up’, the Prime Minister would fragment the UK further by adding an East-West economic divide to the long-existing North-South problem!

The political damage for the Conservatives would ripple outwards from ground zero in Leeds, which is already a transport ‘black hole’ in every sense.

Along with the equally deprived East Midlands, Leeds has been at the heart of zero transport infrastructure investment in decades. Not only the Conservative ‘red wall’ is at risk but the political fallout and damage would radiate north through York to Newcastle, both of which are already grumpy about being beyond the end of HS2E as it currently stands.

The Conservatives would be committing political suicide by scrapping HS2E – and I rather suspect they know it. Yorkshire folk would be rightly and especially unforgiving of such a personal betrayal by the Prime Minister. Scrap HS2E and the entire East Coast Main Line, which is already under intense pressure, will increasingly struggle to cope.

The Department for Transport recently asked Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines to come up with an operator-neutral timetable to tackle this and to make best use of its heavily congested tracks.

Over the past 30 years, the ECML has not delivered performance much above 88 per cent, which is an indication of how hard-pressed this near-200-year-old infrastructure is today.

Scrap HS2E and millions of people in and around Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Teesside and Tyneside will all have to struggle on with ancient rail infrastructure which can barely cope today, while to the west, a very expensive and shiny HS2 WCML by-pass will deliver major benefits for millions of people and hundreds of stations in western England.

Levelling up, Mr Johnson?!

On Monday: Nigel Harris on the consequences of cancelling the eastern leg of HS2 on other services.

See www.railmagazine.com for further details.